Why so much “high policy” in the LDP?

I am close(-ish) to finishing up a book on Party Personnel, coauthored with Matthew Bergman, Cory Struthers, Ellis Krauss, and Robert Pekkanen. The short version of what the book is about: How does the electoral system (and electoral reform) shape how parties deploy their “personnel” (i.e. elected legislators) to legislative committees to allow them to engage in activities that support the party organizational goal of seat-maximization?

(Quick note: While the book is coauthored, I should make clear that this post is just my musing about a puzzle, and not a piece of the book. Nor do my coauthors bear any responsibility for what I am writing here, or conclusions I attempt to draw.)

The outcome variable of interest in the Party Personnel project is the “type” of committee assignment a legislator receives–high policy, public goods, or distributive. This typology first appeared in Pekkanen, Nyblade, and Krauss (2006). In most of the countries covered in the book, a party typically has 50%-60% of its legislators sitting on high policy in any given term of parliament (not necessarily all at once, as members may be rotated). But, in Japan, the Liberal Democratic Party often has 75% or more on high policy, and in some years over 90%!

What explains the unusually high rate of high policy committee assignments in the LDP? I do not think we currently have a good explanation. We have floated some in internal discussions (mostly internal to my own brain), but as I will show in this post, they are not adequate. Before we get into trying to answer the question posed in bold at the start of this paragraph, let’s establish which committees are classified as high policy. These are committees charged with involvement in policies that are about the management of the economy and other matters of state–this is the sense in which they are “high”. Examples are finance, economy, budget, justice, defense, and foreign affairs.

Japan underwent a major electoral reform prior to the 1996 election. The old system was single non-transferable vote (SNTV). The post-reform system is mixed-member majoritarian (MMM). If we look only at averages by electoral-system era, it looks like a case of electoral reform resulting in a large increase in the percentage of LDP members of the House of Representatives obtaining high policy (HP) committee assignments:

SNTV era: 73% of legislators on HP.

MMM era: 86% of legislators on HP.

The difference in means when comparing eras is statistically significant. So, it is the electoral reform, right? (Never mind that even 73% pre-reform would be high, compared to other cases.) Is there a reason why MMM would lead a party to want to emphasize the experience of its caucus in HP more than would be the case under SNTV? Amy Catalinac‘s book, Electoral Reform and National Security in Japan (2016), suggests a reason why the answer might be yes. She analyzes individual candidates’ campaign manifestoes and finds that they are more likely to mention defense under MMM than they were under SNTV. The reason she gives is that members’ having a reputation for high policy areas like defense and foreign affairs was not useful under SNTV, when they were overwhelmingly concerned with “pork” for which they could get individual credit. By contrast, under MMM, each member is the sole standard-bearer in a single-seat district (and is often also running on a closed party list), and thus the pork incentive is greatly diminished. As national security is a key component of high policy, a similar effect might also account for the higher rate of HP committee assignments after electoral reform. That is, HP committees are assigned to LDP legislators at a greater rate under MMM because the party as a whole has a stronger interest in appearing credible on high-policy issues, including national security. This is one plausible explanation of the changes in era averages. For reasons I will turn to later, I am not satisfied with this attempt to explain the patterns in committee assignment.

An initial idea I had was that perhaps the high rate of HP, post-reform, is a legacy of a high rate under SNTV, and will be seen to have declined under MMM. In other words, this is a totally competing explanation to the one that could be derived from a logic similar to that of Catalinac. I would expect more delegation to the cabinet under MMM, in the sense of its being more Westminster-like than under SNTV. (This is a point that Catalinac explicitly argues, in justifying her disagreement with some Japan specialists who, upon the electoral reform, thought pork would remain just as important, only district-focused rather than more narrowly focused as under SNTV.) The problem with expecting a shift towards more HP committee membership under a supposedly more Westminster-like system, or just generally a more policy-centric system, is that it does not comport well with our comparative evidence.

We know that in two Westminster systems covered in the book, Britain and pre-reform New Zealand, the rate of HP committee membership is not especially high (30% in UK Conservatives, 33.5% in Labour; NZ National 54%, Labour 68%). All of these percentages are lower–most are much lower–than the MMM-era mean for the LDP. Nor is it high in Germany (near 60% in both major parties) or post-reform NZ (46% National, 57% Labour), our two MMP cases. These are all systems in which we expect party policy reputation to matter more than individual reputation. So, if Japan moves from SNTV, with its strong focus on the individual, to MMM, with greater focus on the party as a “team” seeking to take on (or hold on to) governing, why would HP be high under MMM?

With this as a puzzle, it seemed likely it might have been just a legacy of pre-reform SNTV. Perhaps, under SNTV, there actually is a logic to getting nearly everyone on HP because your electoral system makes everyone need to have a unique personal reputation. While this does, as noted, run up against the problem that the HP percentage is higher post-reform, it is worth entertaining why its being high under SNTV might not itself be inconsistent with the incentives of the system.

Why might HP for almost everyone be a strategy compliant with SNTV? Maybe the former SNTV system led the party to want most of its members to gain experience in high-policy areas because each member needs to be “his own party”. (Under SNTV, especially, LDP legislators have been overwhelmingly male.) This possible explanation seems at first to be in tension with common expectations that members under SNTV have to differentiate themselves, such as by credit-claiming for pork. Because votes are not pooled (or transferred) among co-partisans, the party needs a way to divide the vote efficiently in order to maximize seats. The literature on vote-division emphasizes how members need to be distinct from one another, so why have almost everyone on high policy?

Actually, this piece of the larger puzzle turns out not to be such a puzzle at all, even though it initially struck me as odd. Even if all legislators (2 or 3) from a given district are on HP, they can still differentiate by being on different HP committees (one on budget, one on defense, for example). Thus having many members on HP and having them develop their own personal reputations are not in any way contradictory. However, differentiating on sub-categories within HP may still not be as beneficial to claiming credit for things uniquely attributable to a specific politician as are pork-related benefits. A common expectation in the vote-division literature (including a key point of Catalinac’s thesis) is that pork is more useful for vote-division than high policy.

Even if we accept that HP is likely suboptimal for vote-division purposes, having everyone on HP does not preclude legislators also being on more specifically district-focused committees in the areas of public goods (e.g., health or education) or distributive (e.g., construction, agriculture, or transport). In fact, the LDP also has an unusually high rate (relative to other parties among the book’s cases) of category overlap. The average member is on about 1.6 of our three categories, unlike in most other countries where the figure is in the range of 1.2 to 1.4. In other words, by our categories, it is members in other countries that are the specialized ones. In the LDP, they are not; they are actually closer to being generalists, at least in this sense.

Having assignments in multiple categories allows each legislator to build a personal portfolio, almost like a micro-party, in which they are involved in some HP task and also frequently a task in either public goods or distributive during the same term. This kind of portfolio could be very useful for building the personal electoral coalition each individual needs to ensure election under an electoral system that pits members of the same party against each other in multi-seat districts, with no party-level vote-pooling. In other words, SNTV.

If the building of a personal portfolio, including but not limited to HP, due to SNTV incentives were the explanation, we should see a decline after the change to MMM. In the graph below, we will see that we do! So that is good. However, we still face the problem that it should not be higher on average during the era of MMM (so far) than it was during the era of SNTV. Yet that is precisely what we saw in the era averages shown above. Now, let’s disaggregate this thing called an electoral-system era. The graph shows the percentage on HP in each election from 1980 through 2009. The vertical line demarcates the eras, marking the first election under MMM.

The decline under MMM is certainly consistent with the notion that HP is less important to the individual legislator over time, given an electoral system that has eliminated intraparty competition in multi-seat districts. Additionally, the 1990 and 1993 elections show exceptionally high levels of personal portfolios including HP at the end of the SNTV era. Yet look how low the rate is before 1990. Thus, while we might be able to say that adaptation to MMM is leading to an expected decline in HP service after 1996 (albeit perhaps too slowly by 2009), we obviously should not conclude that it started so high because of SNTV! It was low under SNTV… until it was high. It then peaked in the first MMM election, before beginning a decline.

So what changed to lead the LDP suddenly to want nearly everyone to have high policy in their portfolio in 1990 and 1993? This–finally–is the question I am crowd-sourcing. The context of the 1990 election is one in which the LDP had just lost its majority in the second chamber (the House of Councillors). There was also a divisive debate at the time on enacting a national consumption tax, around the same time that real estate and stock market valuations were unsustainably high (leading to a subsequent period of economic stagnation). Also in 1993, due to splits over various issues including electoral reform, the LDP actually failed to win a parliamentary majority and found itself temporarily in opposition. How these would explain a surge in HP is not clear to me. So I am not proposing an explanation, but that is the context and perhaps points towards an explanation.

The pattern is similar if we look at category overlap. Again, this simply measures how many categories–out of high policy, public goods, and distributive–a member sits on. So, ignoring anyone who is on no committees in these categories (and I am ignoring such rare birds here), it can range from 1 to 3. The next graph shows this averaged across LDP legislators by election year. Again, the vertical line marks 1996, the first election under MMM. As we see, it is only 1990, 1993, and 1996 when the average number of committee categories per legislator approaches or exceeds 2.0. While lower in the other seven election, it is still above 1.5 in all elections except the three earliest SNTV elections in the sample (1980 through 1986) and then again in 2003 and 2009 of the MMM era. In the five just mentioned, it is between 1.3 and 1.4.

The pattern is again consistent with the LDP deciding for some reason before the 1990 committee allocations that it needed each member to have both high policy and at least one committee assignment from another category. After 1996, this category overlap becomes markedly less common (but still is higher than in most other parties we cover in the book).

A final graph breaks the HP category down and shows three of the main committees within it.

It is clear that the pattern of surging HP membership in 1990 is largely about the budget committee. More than half the party’s legislators sat on this committee in the legislatures elected in 1990, 1993, and 1996. The other two included here (economy and defense) show smaller bumps as well, just not rising as high. This again would be potentially consistent with my proposed explanation that “everyone needs a diverse portfolio under SNTV”, provided we can add a condition as to why this need is only actually realized at the end of the SNTV period and not the entire era. So, the electoral system explanation needs to be augmented by some political factor, like fracturing of the party and greater pressure from the opposition.

It is further worth noting that of all “high policy” committees, it is budget and economy that would have the greatest “pork” potential. While I would not want to reclassify committees dealing with such clearly aggregate national matters to the distributive category–they are clearly “high” topics–they do allow for opportunities to claim credit. Did the LDP simply need this even more in the 1990s than in the 1980s? The patterns certainly suggest they need it less under MMM, at least after the first MMM election of 1996. The patterns also show that defense committee assignments very quickly went back down in the 2000s after their peak with the first MMM election. So, while they may continue to talk about national security in the individual campaign manifestoes (per Catalinac), few LDP members by 2009 are sitting on committees where they can actually be involved in such policy discussions.

This has been a long post. Thank you to anyone who made it this far! I hope someone has some suggestions for why these patterns are seen in the data. The book does not look at time factors in committee assignments, except for pre-reform and post-reform eras where there has been a change of electoral system (Japan and New Zealand, among our cases). However, any attempt to explain the anomalously high averages in high policy assignment and committee-category overlap in Japan has to grapple with the fact that there is a within-era variance in the LDP that is quite stark. It is not just a story about two different electoral systems, nor is it something immutable about the LDP.

Australian fires

I have a lot of readers and regular commenters in Australia. I actually don’t know where most of them live. I just wanted to take a moment to say that I hope you are all safe. Being a Californian, I know that, even if you do not live in direct harm’s way, the smoke and the accompanying weather can make life difficult during these emergencies. Be safe, and be well.

Australia 2019

The Australian 2019 general election is 18 May. In fact, as I enter this text, it is only about an hour and half before polls open in the eastern part of the country (thus about 14.5 hours before they close in the west), even though it’s midday Friday where I am. So, for now I will leave the task of discussing election day and the early results to my several capable Australian commentators, as well as anyone else who wants to chime in.

I recommend this background piece in Inside Story on the history of Australian election results. Also this piece by Antony Green on calculating swings.

Indonesia 2019

Indonesia’s general elections are on 17 April. For the first time, these will be concurrent–president and assembly on the same date. Previously, since the country’s 1990s democratization, assembly elections had been held in the counterhoneymoon, i.e., several months before the presidential election.

Indonesia has a wonderful election mascot. We need more of these in the world of elections.

Source: Lowy Institute report on election.

(Yes, there are a lot of elections this month and next!)

New Zealand to have referendum questions on 2020 ballot, potentially including “tweaks” to MMP

Earlier in December, the Justice Minister of New Zealand, Andrew Little (Labour) announced that there would be a binding referendum on recreational cannabis use concurrent with the 2020 general election. There may also be a question on euthanasia, and–of core interest to this blog–electoral reform.

Earlier, Little had said:

It has been floating around that if we’re going to do a bunch of referenda, why wouldn’t we put this question about whether we want to make those final tweaks to MMP, reduce that 5 per cent threshold to 4 per cent, get rid of the one-seat coat-tailing provision.

These proposals were part of the Electoral Commission’s MMP Review, but the government at the time (National-led) did not act on them.

The multiparty nature of the New Zealand political system that MMP has institutionalized is apparent in these issues being on the table. Having a referendum on cannabis use was a provision of the confidence and supply agreement that Labour signed with the Green Party after the 2017 election. In addition, Labour’s other current governing partner, New Zealand First, has indicated support for a bill on euthanasia sponsored by the leader of ACT, another of the smaller parties (a right-wing partner to opposition National).

Both provisions that the MMP Review recommended changing have had past impacts on current parties. The ACT has depended for its representation in parliament on the so-called coat-tailing provision (a term I do not like for the alternative threshold) in several elections. The New Zealand First once was left out of parliament for having a vote share between 3.5% and 5%, despite other parties (including ACT) being represented, due to winning a single district (electorate) plurality. (Obviously, 4% would not have helped NZF in 2008, as it had only 3.65%. But the point is that the current provisions produce potential anomalies; I have suggested before that the two thresholds should be brought closer to one another.)

Also of note: Little said that the cabinet had discussed, but decided against, having a citizen’s assembly to deliberate issues related to cannabis (and perhaps also euthanasia).

Is AV just FPTP on steroids?

In debates over electoral systems in Canada, one often hears, from otherwise pro-reform people, that a shift to the alternative vote would be worse than the status quo. It is easy to understand why this view might be held. The alternative vote (AV), also known as instant runoff (IRV), keeps the single-seat districts of a system like Canada’s current first-past-the-post (FPTP) system, but replaces the plurality election rule in each district with a ranked-ballot and a counting procedure aimed at producing a majority winner. (Plurality winners are still possible if, unlike in Australia, ranking all candidates is not mandatory. The point is that pluralities of first or sole-preference votes are not sufficient.)

Of course, the claim that AV would be FPTP on steroids implies that, were Canada to switch to AV, the current tendency towards inflated majorities for a party favored by less than half the voters would be even more intensified. This is plausible, inasmuch as AV should favor a center-positioned party. A noteworthy feature of the Canadian party system is the dominance, most of the time, by a centrist party. This is unusual in comparison with most other FPTP systems, notably the UK (I highly recommend Richard Johnston’s fascinating book on the topic). The party in question, the Liberal Party, would pick up many second preferences, mainly from the leftist New Democratic Party (NDP) and so, according to the “steroids” thesis, it would thus win many more seats than it does now. It might even become a “permanent majority”, able to win a parliamentary majority even if it is second in (first-preference) votes to the Conservatives (who thus win the majority or at least plurality of seats under FPTP). The “steroids” claim further implies that the NDP would win many fewer seats, and thus Canada would end up with more of a two-party system rather than the multiparty system it has under FPTP.

There is a strong plausibility to this claim. We can look to the UK, where AV was considered in a referendum. Simulations at the time showed that the Liberal Democrats would stand to benefit rather nicely from a change to AV. While the LibDems are a third party, heavily punished by the FPTP electoral system even when they have had 20% or so of the votes, what they have in common with the Canadian Liberals is their centrist placement. Thus, perhaps we have an iron law of AV: the centrist party gains in seats, whether or not it is already one of the two largest parties. An important caveat applies here: with the LibDems having fallen in support since their coalition with the Conservatives (2010-15), the assumptions they would gain from AV probably no longer apply.

On the other hand, we have the case of the Australian House of Representatives, which is elected by AV. There, a two-party system is even stronger in national politics than in the FPTP case of the UK, and far more so than in Canada. (When I say “two party” I am counting the Coalition as a party because it mostly operates as such in parliament and its distinct component parties seldom compete against one another in districts.)

It is not as if Australia has never had a center-positioned party. The Australian Democrats, for example, reached as high as 11.3% of the first-preference votes in 1990, but managed exactly zero seats (in what was then a 148-seat chamber). Thus being centrist is insufficient to gain from AV.

Nonetheless, the combination of centrism and largeness does imply that Canada’s Liberals would be richly rewarded by a change to AV. Or at least it seems that Justin Trudeau thought so. His campaign promised 2015 would be the last election under FPTP. While he did not say what would replace it, he’s previously said he likes a “ranked ballot” and he pulled the plug on an electoral-reform process when it was veering dangerously towards proportional representation.

Still, there are reasons to be somewhat skeptical, at least of the generalization of the Australian two-party experience. The reasons for my caution against the “steroids” view are two-fold: (1) the overlooked role of assembly size; (2) the ability of parties and voters to adapt.

Assembly size is the most important predictor of the size of the largest party, disproportionality, and the effective number of seat-winning parties in countries that use single-seat districts. (It is likely relatively less important when there are two rounds of voting, as in France, but still likely the most important factor.) This is a key conclusion of Votes from Seats. It is thus important not to overlook the fact that Australia has an assembly size considerably smaller than Canada’s. In the book, Taagepera and I show that Australia’s effective number of seat-winning parties and size of largest parliamentary party are almost what we would expect from its assembly size, even if FPTP were used. (See also this earlier post and its comment thread; how close it is to expectation depends on how we count what a “party” is.) The data are calculated over the 1949-2011 period, and the effective number of parties has been just 1.10 times the expectation from the Seat Product Model (which is based only on assembly size when single-seat districts are used). Similarly, the average largest party has been 93% of the expected size (averaging 50.5%  of seats when we would expect 54.2%).

Thus we do not need to invoke the alleged steroids aspect of AV to understand the dominance of two parties in Australia. But this does not mean it would not make a difference in Canada. Consider that the current effective number of parties and size of the largest party in that country, averaged over a similar period, are also just about what we should expect. The multipartism, including periodic minority governments, that characterize Canada are not surprising, when you use the Seat Product Model (SPM). They are surprising only if you think district magnitude is all that matters, and that FPTP is FPTP. But it isn’t! An electoral system using the FPTP electoral rule with an assembly of more than 300 seats is a different, and more multiparty-favoring, electoral system than one with 150 seats. Replace “FPTP” in that sentence with “AV” and it is surely still true.

But what about the centrist party, the Canadian Liberals? Surely AV would work differently in this context, and the Liberals would be a much more advantaged party. Right? Maybe. If so, then it would mean that the SPM would be overridden, at least partially, in Canada, and the largest party would be bigger than expected, for the assembly size, while the effective number of parties would be lower than expected. Of course, that’s possible! The SPM is devised for “simple” systems. AV is not simple, as we define that term. Maybe the SPM is just “lucky” that the one country to have used AV for a long time has the expected party system; or it is lucky that country has the “correct” assembly size to sustain two-party dominance. (Australia is the Lucky Country, after all, so if the SPM is going to get lucky somewhere, it might as well be Australia.)

This is where that other factor comes in. While no one has a crystal ball, I am going to go with the next best thing. I am going to say that the SPM is reliable enough that we can predict that, were Canada to have AV, it would have an effective number of parties around 2.6 and a largest party with around 48% of seats. In other words, just about where it has been for quite some time (adjusting for the House size having been a bit smaller in the past than it is now). Note these are averages, over many elections. Any one election might deviate–in either direction. I won’t claim that a first election using AV would not be really good for the Liberals! I am doubting that would be a new equilibrium. (Similarly, back in 2016 I said my inclination would not be to predict the effective number of parties to go down under AV.)

Parties and voters have a way of adapting to rules. Yes the Liberals are centrist, and yes the Conservatives are mostly alone on the right of the spectrum (albeit not quite as much now, heading into 2019, as in recent years). But that need not be an immutable fact of Canadian politics. Under AV, the Liberals might move leftward to attract NDP second preferences, the NDP center-ward to attract Liberal and even Conservative second preferences, the Conservatives also towards the center. It would be a different game! The Greens and other parties might be more viable in some districts than is currently the case, but also potentially less viable in others where they might win a plurality, but struggle to get lower ranked preferences. The point is, it could be fluid, and there is no reason to believe scenarios that have the largest party increasing in size (and being almost always the Liberals), and correspondingly the effective number of parties falling. With 338 or so districts, likely there would remain room for several parties, and periodic minority governments (and alternations between leading parties), just as the SPM predicts for a country with that assembly size and single-seat districts.

As I have noted before, it is the UK that is the surprising case. Its largest party tends to be far too large for that huge assembly (currently 650 seats), and its effective number of seat-winning parties is “too low”. Maybe it needs AV to realize its full potential, given that the simulations there showed the third party benefitting (at least when it was larger than it’s been in the two most recent elections).

Bottom line: I do not buy the “FPTP on steroids” characterization of AV. I can understand were it comes from, given the presence in Canada of a large centrist party. I just do not believe Liberal dominance would become entrenched. The large assembly and the diversity of the country’s politics (including its federal structure) both work against that.

I agree with electoral reformers that PR would be better for Canada than AV. I also happen to think it would be better for the Liberals! But would AV be worse than FPTP? Likely, it would not be as different as the “steroids” claim implies.